With the increasing tensions on the Korean peninsula, the media has created a virtual industry in overselling the capabilities of the North Korean army. I’ll hit on the main points in the coming days but suffice it to say Seoul, the fourth largest city in the world with over 26 million people and covering 233 square miles, is in zero danger of being leveled by North Korean artillery (basic math, being something beyond the grasp of journalists and television “military analysts”). North Korean “special forces” are what the Western world would call “competent light infantry.”
But one of the best ways to see how North Korean equipment stacks up against what it would face in a new Korean War is to look at it on the battlefield. Where can we do that? Syria.
The Syrian army’s armor mainstay, like North Korea’s, is the long-in-the-tooth T-55. Syria, in fact, uses North Korean modified T-55s. The North Korean T-55 has a added a laser range finder; various ballistic sensors like hygrometer, barometer, and thermometer; a ballistic computer; improved fire suppression system; and applique armor. The important takeaway is that this tank makes up the backbone. North Korea has over 3,500 T55s and the Chinese knock-off, the Type 59.
This is the basic vehicle:
In 2014, the first US anti-tank weapons made their way to Syria in the form of the BGM-71 Tube-Launched, Optically Tracked, Wire-Guided, or TOW missile. The TOW is still in use with US forces though it is being supplanted by “fire and forget” anti-tank missiles that don’t require the TOW gunner to take his lumps while visually guiding a rather slow-moving missile onto its target. The weapons come from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf States:
The weapons were not directly provided by the United States. “Friends of Syria” delivered them, he said, referring to the U.S.-backed alliance of Western powers and Persian Gulf Arab states established to support the opposition Free Syrian Army. The rebels had to promise to return the canister of each missile fired, to not resell the weapons and to protect them from theft.
What you are about to see is a result of that agreement. This is an engagement between Jaysh Idlib al-Hurr rebels and the Syrian army. The tank in question is a T-55 and the film’s distributors state that it is a North Korean modified tank which we know are being used in Syria. Accept it or not.
The first thing that strikes me is the totally nonchalant way in which the TOW is positioned and manned. The gunner is sitting out there in front of God and everybody. No cover whatsoever. Minimal concealment. Keep in mind that the max range of the TOW is well within the range of the main gun of a tank and, in this case, within range of the DShK 12.7mm heavy machine gun mounted at the TC’s hatch. The TOW missile travels at about 300 m/sec. The T-55’s main gun has a muzzle velocity of about 1,000 m/sec. In a world with any justice, this clown would be dead before his missile reached the target. Fortunately for him, he’s fighting other Arabs. When the T-55 trundles into sight the driver is making no attempt to drive tactically and it looks like the Syrians are deploying their tanks in singletons, as mobile pillboxes, rather than as an armored force. This is how the French turned a numerical superiority in tanks into catastrophic defeat in the summer of 1940.
Note that the missile strikes the front of the turret where the armor is thickest. It looks like the driver survived the strike, which wouldn’t be unheard of as he’s in a different compartment from the turret, and tries to get the hell out of Dodge but ends up with a participation trophy.
As you can see, even with an older version of the TOW, the T-55 is overmatched. This is what is known in the trade as a “K-kill.” K meaning “catastrophic.” The plasma jet from the TOW missile ignites the propellant of the main gun rounds. The rounds cook off and the diesel flashes as best diesel is able to flash. The applique armor and upgraded fire suppression system don’t seem to be very significant to this engagement.
(As an aside, there is a lot of cutting in the video towards the end to replay the explosion.)
This is a matchup between a weapon on the way out of the inventory of the US and ROK armies and the most numerous class of North Korean main battle tanks.
It is a story that is repeated over and over, system by system.